[Review] Steve Winwood: Back In The High Life (1986)

Steve Winwood’s best solo album, it dominated the airwaves alongside Peter Gabriel’s So and Paul Simon’s Graceland.

Kronomyth 4.0: Winwood you like me to come back?

And just like that, Steve Winwood was back and all the doors were open. Dancing in on the heels of Peter Gabriel’s So, Back In The High Life co-commandeered the airwaves with an almost identical mix of painstakingly pieced-together pop music that rolled elements of gospel, funk and world music into a joyous testimony. Not only is this a better record than any of his previous three, it’s a better record than all three put together.

After years of underwhelming DIY albums, Winwood took a completely different approach for High Life, bringing in an outside producer for the first time as well as dozens of guests including Chaka Khan, Nile Rodgers, James Taylor, Joe Walsh and a full horn section. So much for the less-is-more aesthetic—more, it turns out, is definitely more. I know it sounds pretty lame to call music a celebration of life, but that’s exactly what this feels like. “Higher Love” and “The Finer Things,” both written with lyricist Will Jennings in 1984, are life-affirming songs that have a deep if simple spirituality behind them.

Normally, this would be the part of the review where I start telling you the other six songs suck, but you won’t find a bad song on here. “Freedom Overspill” and “Back In The High Life Again” made the Top 20, and even album cuts like “Split Decision” and “Wake Me Up On Judgment Day” made it on the radio. A year after its release, the album was still in heavy radio rotation and its charming title track, “Back In The High Life Again,” was just exiting the charts after 21 weeks. When the dust finally settled, Back In The High Life scored more Grammies than Peter Gabriel’s So, Paul Simon’s Graceland and GenesisInvisible Touch, combined. You can actually see Winwood win the award for Record of the Year on YouTube, beating out, among others, a hopeful-looking Dionne Warwick (you think she would have seen that coming).

Original elpee version

A1. Higher Love (5:45)
A2. Take It As It Comes (5:20)
A3. Freedom Overspill (Steve Winwood/James Hooker/George Fleming) (5:33)
A4. Back In The High Life Again (5:33)
B1. The Finer Things (5:47)
B2. Wake Me Up On Judgment Day (5:48)
B3. Split Decision (Steve Winwood/Joe Walsh) (5:58)
B4. My Love’s Leavin’ (Steve Winwood/Vivian Stanshall) (5:19)

All songs written by Steve Winwood/Will Jennings unless noted.

The Players

Steve Winwood (vocals, synthesizers, keyboards, Hammond organ, piano, guitar, mandolin, synthesizer bass, Moog bass, sequencer & drum machine programming) with Jimmy Bralower (drum machine programming), Randy Brecker (trumpet), Jocelyn Brown (backing vocals), Mickey Curry (drums on track 2), Lewis Del Gatto (baritone & tenor sax), Steve Ferrone (drums on track 3), David Frank (synthesizer horns & horn arrangements), Dan Hartman (backing vocals on track 5), Connie Harvey (backing vocals), James Ingram (backing vocals on track 5), Chaka Khan (backing vocals on track 1), Robbie Kilgore (keyboards, synthesizers, sequencer programming), Tom Malone (trombone), Arif Mardin (synthesizer string arrangement), Eddie Martinez (guitar), Bob Mintzer (tenor sax), Rob Mounsey (synthesizers, keyboards), Paul Pesco (guitar on track 5), John Robinson (drums), Nile Rodgers (guitar), Philippe Saisse (synthesizer bass on track 1), Ira Siegal (guitar on track 6), Carol Steele (percussion, congas, tambourine), Mark Stevens (backing vocals), James Taylor (harmony vocals on track 4), Andrew Thomas (synthesizer programming), Joe Walsh (slide guitar) and George Young (alto sax). Produced by Russ Titelman and Steve Winwood. The album won a Grammy for Best Engineering, which was given to engineers Jason Corsaro, Tom Lord Alge (who also mixed the album) and Mike Nicholson. Oddly, Nicholson’s name does not appear on the original album credits. However, a number of people are credited with additional engineering on the album including Nobby Clark, Chris Lord Alge, Jim Boyer, Dave Greenberg, Bruce Lampcov, Malcolm Pollack and Jon Wolfson.

The Pictures

Album cover design and art direction by Jeri McManus, art direction by Jeffrey Kent Ayeroff and photography by Arthur Elgort.

The Plastic

Released on June 1986 on elpee, cassette and compact disc in the UK (Island, ILPS/ICT/CID-9844), the US (Island, 25448), Brazil (Island, 6107 083), Canada (Island, 92 54481), Germany (Island, 207 769) and Yugoslavia (Jugoton, LSI-73178) with lyrics innsersleeve. Reached #8 on the UK charts and #3 on the US charts (RIAA certified 4x platinum on November 22, 1996).

  1. Re-released on remastered compact disc in 1994 in the US (Mobile Fidelity, UDCD-611).

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